Yooperlite: Rock Hunting and the Glow of Success

Erik Rintamaki is a rock star. The 44-year-old has appeared on television screens all over the world. He’s been featured in magazines and newspapers, and online. His bushy face has been photographed hundreds of thousands of times. And lots of like-minded folks want to do tours with him.

Above: Detail from Yooperlite and the Northern Lights by Shelly Leigh. Credit: Michigan Milky Way Photo.

So how did this Yooper from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula become so famous? He shined a UV flashlight around on the rocky shores of Lake Superior until something glowed.

Discovering Yooperlite

In the spring of 2017, the casino worker was prowling the shores with a cheap UV light hoping it would help him find Lake Superior agate, which he sells as a sideline. But they have been “super hunted to death,” he says, and he came up empty handed.

The fourth night on his hands and knees at 4 a.m., Erik found three little stones – gray, black and tan – that fluoresced. They glowed like a hot fire when the purple beam of his cheap flashlight excited minerals in the stone. So, he grabbed up the bland looking rocks and raced home to Brimley, Michigan, to see if he could identify them online through a computer search. When that effort failed to produce any results, he contacted a friend in California, Gabe Reyna, who eventually concluded the rocks consisted of a syenite-rich fluorescent sodalite. (Most of us think of sodalite as a blue rock, but this material is clear, Erik says.)

Yooperlite photographed in normal light (left) and under UV light (right).

Yooperlite photographed in normal light (left) and under UV light (right).

Gemstone Origins

Research followed and in May 2018 an article in Mineral News concluded that Erik and Reyna had discovered something new, even though rock collectors had been stumbling over these dull-looking rocks for ages.

Erik says this finding gave him naming rights – so he called his glowing stones “Yooperlites.”

Then he trademarked the word.

“There are a lot of hoops and it’s very expensive,” he says. “You have to prove you were the first person to use that word ever and use that word for a rock.”

It’s a trademark he enforces. In other words, if you find yooperlite and want to sell it as yooperlite, you can’t. Erik owns the term as intellectual property. “If someone wants to sell one or two pieces, I don’t care,” he says. “But if you have hundreds of listings (online), you have to become a qualified vendor.”

According to reports, Erik’s find originated from an outcrop in Ontario, Canada, called the Coldwell Alkaline Complex, and was brought down and tumbled into smooth pebbles and cobbles by glacier and wave action. The stone has a Mohs hardness of 5, and cuts and polishes beautifully, he says. “It’s consistent. You don’t get a lot of fractures. It’s kind of a lapidary dream. If you drop them on the floor, they don’t shatter in 50 pieces.”

Making a Yooperlite Living

Working with craftspeople and other vendors, Erik sells Yooperlite beads, cabochons, night sky photographs and UV flashlights on his website, and gets anywhere from $1 to $600 a pound depending on the fluorescence of the stone. He himself cuts yooperlite spheres and leads nighttime rock hunting tours, unless he’s on the road selling at gem shows.

Want to make a yooperlite cabochon into a piece of jewelry? No problem. Just bring along a UV flashlight to show it off, he says.

Erik’s discovery has been published twice in Rock & Gem magazine, and from the start got him superfast recognition online, garnering more than a million views. Buyers are from all over the world, especially Japan. (The Japanese take a lot of photos of him when they see him in person, he says.)

As a result, Erik, who is married to Angela, has been able to accomplish three goals: As of Jan. 1, 2019, he says he quit his full-time job at the casino; he bought a Subaru; and he is well on his way to making his first million dollars.

Finding Yooperlite

But you don’t have to go to Michigan’s far, far north to find yooperlite, he says. “You can find it in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, in farm fields, driveways, gravel pits.” It just takes a good quality UV flashlight, and patience. According to another online article, you need to go slow, then go slower.

Shelly Leigh, 36, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, specializes in nighttime photography. On August 31, a huge solar storm was forecast and produced Northern lights, which she spent the night imaging along with Erik’s yooperlites. “When I saw stories about these rocks, I thought I’ve just got to get a picture,” she says. “We got lucky.”

Above the photo at top: Shelly Leigh, 36, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, specializes in nighttime photography. On August 31, a huge solar storm was forecast and produced Northern lights, which she spent the night imaging along with Erik’s yooperlites. “When I saw stories about these rocks, I thought I’ve just got to get a picture,” she says. “We got lucky.”

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at betsylehndorff@gmail.com.

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